Common Mistakes in Writing SOP and Application Essays

Nistha (Scholar Strategy)

Are you making these common mistakes in writing SOP and application essays?

How to avoid most common mistakes while writing SOP or other application essays for your MS, MIS and MBA applications?

Today, we will look into how to avoid some common pitfalls.

Here are some common problems we have observed-

Rehashing the resume:

SOP is not a verbose form of your resume. The worst SOPs are the ones that say – 'I graduated from XYZ with a GPA of 8.9. Here, I took courses A, B and C and did projects E, F and G. After graduation, I joined company K and worked on blah blah'. The problem here is that it is adding nothing to what you have already told in your resume, so you are wasting a precious opportunity to connect and communicate to the admissions committee what your other unique qualities are.

SOP is your personal story that is unique to you. Use it to highlight your soft qualities, successes and failures. Show them your vision and why you will make a great student. Show them that you have done the groundwork and you know what you are talking about.

Hollow claims:

Nothing is more frustrating than reading a page full of baseless claims. As in literature, one rule holds true here as well – don't tell, show it to me. If you say you are hard working, show it – give me a specific example that will tell me you are hardworking without having to say it. Same goes with claiming that you are an innovative thinker. When a student tells how he came up with unique ways to raise huge funding for a college event, I automatically know that he can think out of the box. So, instead of inserting hundred of adjectives there, try to tell 3-4 meaningful stories that show what you are capable of.

Lack of confidence:

Did you read other SOPs and felt that others had something to write about but you have nothing? Believe me, you have as much to write as they did and your life is no less eventful than theirs. Their SOP got to that point after multiple iterations. If you see anyone's first drafts, you will snicker! So, don't lose heart, just get started.

Lack of planning:

Writing a SOP takes time and you should have at least good 4-5 weeks for the revisions and your final draft should come after at least 3-4 iterations. Why? Because howsoever great you may be in last minute work (especially the engineers), SOP needs reflection which takes time. You may have skipped some important event or detail in the first time and you only remember as you revise and revise. You have to proactively think – 'what makes your profile credible, strong and interesting'. Build a theme and structure for telling your story. Best SOPs are the ones that connect small parts of the applicant's life (decisions and events) with a bigger vision and goal. It is a matter of building a story and it takes time. You just cannot rush it.

Discounting your failures:

Often, students avoid talking about things that they haven't done well at such as GRE score, GPA, a course grade etc. However, you can use your failures to demonstrate that you have the ability to overcome these – and that makes for some very strong stories! For e.g. look how an applicant uses his failure to demonstrate another strength-

With my father's illness and added responsibilities at home, my academic performance in second year suffered a lot and my GPA took a plunge. However, it only made me more motivated to work harder and restore my confidence. With extra hours and renewed focus, I was able to restore my GPA to a more respectable figure. While it is way below what I feel I am capable of, I am proud that I could take care of my family when needed and still manage three B's in that semester.

Now you can imagine what will the admission committee feel about such an applicant – sure, his GPA might be much lower than many other applicants but he has demonstrated enough determination to overcoming hurdles and embracing failures. This is undeniably a strong admirable quality to have in a student. Choose to be honest. After all, there are humans in the admission committee who may appreciate an honest explanation way more than a denial.

Being too humble:

Ok, so I understand that humility is a virtue and all that. But at the end of the day, an applicant needs to sell himself to the admissions committee and the SOP is his advertisement. That's right – SOP is a marketing tactic. This does not mean that you have to be dishonest, it just means that you cannot afford underselling yourself. This is your chance to shine and sometimes, humility can mislead since the admission committee doesn't know you well enough to understand that you are just being shy or humble (especially Indians), they will take your lack of self-praise to be lack of accomplishments. Don't fall into that trap! You need to speak up for yourself loud and clear (it is not the same as indulging in self-flattery or braggadocios). If you have achieved something, take pride in it and mention it without sounding arrogant. Sell yourself.

Cheesy cliches :

Don't try to fit in by citing similar examples and using same quotes that thousand other applicants are using. Try to tell YOUR story in your own words. Note that admission committee goes through thousands of SOPs and can only remember those who stand out. Everyone is writing about 'how I began assembling computer at the age of five' or 'made my first game at the age of eight'. Be honest and spend more time preparing your story – I am sure there is a way to make your honest story sound as impressive. So, don't take a short cut by following any pattern – spend some time and tell your own story.

P.S. In our counseling, we start from scratch and help the applicant build his/her unique story over 4-5 iterations. This process has worked wonders and helped in creating high quality essays for our students. Need help with your SOP? Contact us on before it's too late.

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